First published on The Conversation on 23 April 2013.
In August 2012 the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA), which bills itself as “Australia’s leading free market think tank,” urged opposition leader Tony Abbott to “be like Gough” in the IPA Review, proposing 75 radical ideas that they would like to see an Abbott government adopt if the Coalition wins the 2013 election.
We’ve now heard a response from Abbott himself. In a speech at the IPA’s 70th Anniversary Dinner at the National Gallery of Victoria, Abbott identified twelve areas where his government would back the IPA agenda, concluding: “So, ladies and gentlemen, that is a big fat yes to many of the 75 specific policies you urged upon me.”
However, if one looks closely at what Abbott actually intends to do in certain areas, a number of caveats and contradictions can be identified, and reveal just how at odds Abbott and the IPA are.
Let us take a selection of the policies Abbott mentioned in his speech.
“Repeal the carbon tax”
The first item on Abbott’s list is hardly a surprise. Probably no policy is more closely identified with Abbott than his absolute opposition to the carbon tax. Whether or not he will be able to get a repeal through Parliament is an open question, but there is no doubt that it is what he wants. However, it is what Abbott doesn’t discuss that is important here. The IPA’s specific advice reads:
"Repeal the carbon tax, and don’t replace it. It will be one thing to remove the burden of the carbon tax from the Australian economy. But if it is just replaced by another costly scheme, most of the benefits will be undone."
The Coalition’s “Direct Action Plan” on climate change involves establishing an Emissions Reduction Fund, investing in up to 85 million tonnes per annum of carbon abatement through soil carbons and planting 20 million trees by 2020 (presumably planted by its 15,000-strong Green Army), just to name a few of their proposed measures.
It is difficult to imagine a more interventionist and non-market approach to climate change than one that involves such massive government expenditure and compulsion. Needless to say, the IPA will be sorely disappointed if the Direct Action Plan replaces the carbon tax.
“Repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act (at least in its current form)”This is an issue dear to the heart of the IPA and one of its most prominent members, Herald Sun columnist Andrew Bolt, who was found to be in breach of the Act in 2011. Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act prohibits “offensive behaviour because of race, colour or national or ethnic origin” if it is likely “to offend, insult, humiliate or intimidate another person or a group of people.”
In his own speech at the IPA dinner, Bolt thanked Abbott for his personal support “at a very low moment” following the Federal Court’s judgement.
But by immediately adding the caveat, “at least in its current form,” Abbott made it clear that he is not quite as vehement on this issue as the IPA. What is not clear, however, is the precise meaning of the caveat.
Will the Coalition accept a weakened version of the current Section? If so, this hardly amounts to repeal. And will such an amendment be acceptable to those cheering him on at the IPA dinner, and to Bolt, who continues to claim in print and on his blog that he has been silenced by the Federal Court?
“Develop northern Australia”
In recent years the IPA has joined forces with Gina Rinehart’s lobby group Australians for Northern Development & Economic Vision (ANDEV), which campaigns for low-tax Special Economic Zones, streamlined environmental approvals, northern Australia-specific skilled migration visas, dam construction and infrastructure provision in order to develop the north.
Putting aside the numerous social and environmental concerns about such a project, the irony of a free market think tank advocating massive government intervention and expenditure in order to benefit large private interests appears to be lost on the IPA.
In any event, when a Coalition discussion paper was leaked in February, revealing remarkably similar plans, Tony Abbott was quick to pour cold water on the idea. So where does this leave the IPA’s northern dreams?
The most generous interpretation here is that Abbott was simply preaching to the choir, especially given how often the Coalition reminds us of the dismal fiscal situation they will inherit from Labor.
“Create a one stop shop for environmental approvals”
This was a rather strange inclusion from Abbott, as it refers to no specific policy from the IPA’s list. In fact, it is in explicit contradiction of the IPA’s broad agenda, and goes to the heart of the mismatch between them.
The IPA advises Abbott to “devolve environmental approvals for major projects to the states.” It is impossible to imagine Abbott’s “one stop shop” as anything other than a centralised bureaucracy based in Canberra, the polar opposite of the IPA’s federalist devolution to the states.
As he revealed in his 2009 book Battlelines, Abbott is nothing if not a centralist. He even included a draft “Bill to Amend the Constitution” outlining how states could surrender powers to the Commonwealth “to enable a more effective exercise of Commonwealth power in areas of responsibility shared with the States.” This is absolute anathema to the committed federalists at the IPA, who have been campaigning against centralisation for decades.
“Stop throwing good money after bad on the NBN”
Malcolm Turnbull and Tony Abbott announced the Coalition’s broadband policy earlier this month. It is for others to judge whether the NBN constitutes “throwing good money after bad” or not, but there is no question that a $29.5 billion project is a significant government investment. The IPA’s advice on broadband is to “immediately halt construction of the National Broadband Network and privatise any sections that have already been built.” The Coalition’s plan again reveals just how detached Abbott is from the core principles of the IPA.
A big fat yes?
So, has Tony Abbott given a “big fat yes” to the IPA wishlist as he claimed?
As far as can be gauged from Abbott’s plan, the IPA should be concerned about just how big and fat that yes is.